“Oakland Port Protests Highlight Truckers’ Plight”
by Sunita Sohrabhji
India-West, Dec 16, 2011
Thousands of “Occupy” protestors took to the streets Dec. 12 near the Oakland, Calif., ports to highlight the brutish working conditions of the nation’s truck drivers, who work as many as 70 hours a week for low pay and no benefits.
Similar protests were held the same day and the following morning at ports throughout the West Coast, including Long Beach and San Diego in California; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington. The movement is called “Occupy Wall Street on the Waterfront.”
Indian Americans — predominantly Punjab natives — make up approximately one-third of truck owners and drivers in California. There are more than 32,000 Indian American truck drivers nationwide, according to various reports.
The West Coast port protests were primarily directed at large corporations such as Goldman Sachs who own trucking companies, but also indirectly targeted Indian American trucking company owners.
Valerie Lapin, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, told India-West, “Truck drivers are definitely part of the 99 percent. They are such a clear example of those who are being exploited.”
Trucking companies are skirting their responsibilities by misidentifying truck drivers as independent owner operators, asserted Lapin, adding that this allows companies to get away with not offering health benefits to their employees, along with varied rates of pay, which can sometimes be as little as $30 per day.
Trucking company owners also pay no social security taxes for their workers, who are not protected by health and safety laws though they work in dangerous jobs.
The drivers themselves pay for fuel, truck maintenance, and registration. The California State Legislature also passed the nation’s strictest diesel laws in 2008, requiring old trucks to be retrofitted with $20,000 filters, in a move to improve the state’s air quality. Beginning next year, trucks that have not been retrofitted according to the new regulations will not be allowed at the Oakland port.
“If they complain, they are simply fired,” stated Lapin, noting that the Coalition was not affiliated with the port protests.
Two days before the Oakland port strikes, veteran truck driver Abdul Khan spoke at a “People’s Port Teach-In” in Oakland, noting that he struggles to support his wife and two children on an annual salary of $25,000, despite working 60-70 hour weeks.
“Sometimes, I don’t make anything in a day,” he told reporters at the teach-in.
Several Indian American owners of trucking companies who operate out of the Oakland ports expressed their displeasure over the two-day protest.
“I didn’t cross the picket line because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Rajiv Jain, owner of Bridgeport Transporting and Warehousing, told India-West.
“My drivers were intimidated by the protestors. We don’t support them at all,” asserted Jain, noting that at a similar occurrence in November, protestors threw rocks at the trucks, shattering windshields which had to be replaced by the drivers who own their trucks.
Jain said that his 35 drivers, who are all independent owner-operators, make between $300 and $500 per day, before expenses such as fuel and maintenance. Jain estimates he and his drivers lost $45,000 on Dec. 12, the first day of the protests.
Kamaljit Singh, owner of Cargo Bay Trucking which also operates from the Oakland ports, told India-West that all of his six drivers lost an entire day of pay.
“My drivers live paycheck to paycheck. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. I can’t afford to supplement their income,” he said.
Asked why his workers were designated as independent owner operators, rather than employees who could receive benefits, Singh said, “Everyone in the trucking business works independently. The drivers prefer it because they can make more money.”
But Ramon Anderson, who has worked for Singh for 18 years, told India-West he supported the protestors, even though he lost a day’s pay of $145.
“I have no social security, no pension fund, no unemployment, and I have to cover my own medical benefits, plus pay for my own fuel at $5 a gallon, and make sure that my truck is okay to go the next day,” said Anderson, 53, who is a father of two, and raising his four-year-old grandson.
The veteran driver, who started working in the industry straight out of high school, said it is the clients of trucking companies who must pay more.
“I do a lot of work with the Napa wineries. I go up to their expensive homes, their big vineyards and they’re paying me $145 to move a load, basically a whole day’s work.”
From that amount, Anderson estimates he pays out $80 for fuel – the wineries pay a surcharge of $20 for fuel with the rest coming out of his pocket – and $18 for bridge toll. He often pulls three loads in a 12-hour day to make his living expenses.
Anderson said he has often spoken to Singh about changing the system, but without much success. Asked why he stayed in the business, despite such difficult conditions, Anderson said, “I’ve been doing it for so long. I’m 53 years old. What else am I going to do?”
It was unclear at press time Dec. 13 as to how long the port protests would continue.
Several port truck drivers from throughout the nation sent out an open letter Dec. 12.
“We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work that we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part-time at a fast-food counter, especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week,” said the letter, likening trucks to “sweatshops on wheels.”